Student Life

A Traveler's Guide to Avoiding COVID-19 During the Holidays

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Sleigh bells, menorahs, and hazmat suits: COVID-19 is going to make this a wild holiday season.

Although the coronavirus pandemic is as bad as it sounds, that doesn't mean you can't go home without being infected. You just have to consider the risks and plan accordingly.

The truth is that travel increases your chances of being infected. Unless you stay hunkered down in your room, there is no fool-proof way to avoid the coronavirus.

Airports, bus stations, train stations, hotels, rest stops, and gas stations are all places you can be exposed to the virus in the air and on surfaces. Some of these places also make it hard to maintain an appropriate social distance of six feet away from other people.

It's hard to say if one type of travel is safer than others. Each comes with its own risks and upsides. Whatever you decide, there are four general principles to remember:

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Air Travel

Here's the deal: Flying on an airplane is risky, especially if the flight is long, but flying is often the fastest and most convenient way to get from one place to another. If you choose to fly, you should know what you're getting into.

Airports are becoming crowded again. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) encourages but does not require travelers to maintain social distance wherever possible. That means you'll have to be careful whenever you come into close contact with other people.

Keep your mask on while in line for security, during boarding, and onboard the plane. Do your best to stay apart from those around you. If someone walks too close to you, hold your breath. No, seriously — you'll reduce your risk of breathing in COVID-19.

Don't worry so much about the transmission of the virus through the plane's ventilation system. Aircraft air is continually filtered and circulated to remove air particles.

A U.S. Department of Defense study estimated that a passenger wearing a mask would have to spend 54 hours on a plane with an infectious person to receive a contagious dose of particles.

Most airlines require face coverings during flight, but you might see someone remove their mask to eat or drink. This is allowed, but only for a brief period. More recently, airlines are tightening mask policies to keep flights extra safe. Some passengers who don't wear masks may be asked to leave the plane.

At the start of the pandemic, most airlines didn't fill middle seats in order to encourage social distancing, but some airlines have since changed that policy. Make sure to research your airline's COVID-19 safety policies to avoid any surprises when you board your flight.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has suggested wearing goggles, though the risk of transmission through the soft tissues of the eyes is low. Although you may get some funny looks, it's a worthwhile safety precaution while near others.

Is it safe to fly right now? The answer is both yes and no. Ultimately, it will be up to you and your fellow passengers to reduce the risk of transmission.

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Public Transportation

Public transportation has a reputation for being a petri dish for germs. But what are the coronavirus travel concerns on buses, trains, trams, ferries, and other rider-heavy forms of transit?

Much like planes, public transportation poses risks just because you're near other passengers. However, studies have shown that the risk is low as long as you wear a mask, social distance, and travel during non-peak hours.

A study by the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom found that the risk of contracting COVID-19 on public transit may increase by 10% depending on how close you sit to infected passengers. The chances of being infected also go up for every hour you travel with them.

Public transportation is also risky when it comes to frequently touched surfaces: kiosks, fingerprint scanners, ticket machines, turnstiles, handrails, and benches. If you contact these surfaces, immediately wash your hands for 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer.

Unlike planes, public transit offers some flexibility to sit wherever you want. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends skipping a row of seats to put some distance between yourself and other riders. Amtrak trains also offer private rooms on both shorter and overnight routes for the same reason.

Other general rules to follow, if possible, include:

  • Choosing touchless payment, if possible;
  • Using no-touch trash cans;
  • Entering and exiting buses through less-used rear entry doors;
  • Sanitizing your hands when you sit down; and
  • Washing your hands after leaving the transit.

 

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Road Trip

Hopping in a car for a road trip back home, avoiding strangers all together, can be safer than flying or public transportation. However, depending on how long you travel, it's not entirely risk-free.

Making stops along the way for gas, food, bathroom breaks, or a hotel stay can put you in close contact with other people and frequently touched surfaces. You'll need to treat each stop with caution, even if you're not in crowded places.

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, COVID-19 can survive on plastic for 72 hours and stainless steel for 48 hours.

The virus can end up on a gas pump handle or buttons if an infected person sneezes or coughs and droplets land on the surface. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, COVID-19 can survive on plastic for 72 hours and stainless steel for 48 hours. The CDC recommends using disinfecting wipes on handles and buttons before touching them, using hand sanitizer after fueling, and washing your hands when you get home.

Gas stations usually set their own indoor COVID-19 safety protocols. Some have plexiglass between the workers and the countertop; others might not. Be sure to keep your mask on at all times and social distance if you head inside.

Hotels have introduced new cleaning and safety programs that make stays safer, including extensive disinfection of indoor public spaces, door handles, and rooms. But, as usual, the biggest threat is interacting with other people. You may want to stay holed up in your room to be safe, which means taking a pass on continental breakfast.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, 17 states still do not require people to wear masks in public. Wherever you stay, you'll want to follow the checklist for guests recommended by the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA), the hotel industry's primary trade group. It recommends:

  • Wearing face masks in all indoor public spaces and practicing social distancing in all common areas;
  • Choosing contactless options, if possible, including online reservations, check-ins, and payments;
  • Asking the hotel to do daily room cleaning;
  • Requesting contactless room service delivery; and
  • Refraining from traveling if you have, or recently had, any symptoms of COVID-19 or contact with anyone diagnosed with COVID-19.

 

Staying in an Airbnb is also an option, but it's a little more of a gamble. Airbnb banned parties in August of 2020 and requires a five-step cleaning process for its hosts, making it a reasonably safe option if the house/unit has been empty for a few days between guests and was thoroughly cleaned. But they don't have the same oversight as a hotel, making them a bigger risk.

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Staying in Your College Dorm/Apartment/House

Maybe you decide not to go home. While you may not be traveling, there are still some things to consider, depending on your housing situation.

Dorms typically stay open during the short breaks (fall break, Thanksgiving break, etc.), but many close down entirely during the winter break. At schools that do this, all students are required to vacate. Find out ahead of time if your college is making any exceptions during the coronavirus pandemic.

Isolating in your current location is undoubtedly the safest option. However, according to psychologists, a lack of social connection can be harmful to your mental health. Staying in your dorm, apartment, or house over the holidays may worsen those feelings.

However, there are ways to make the most of your time alone. Try these out:

  • Create a daily routine that signals your brain to be productive.
  • Maintain a healthy diet to improve your overall health.
  • Stimulate your brain with fun activities.
  • Set up virtual chats with friends and family.
  • Get outdoors for exercise multiple times per week.

Reminders About Being Home

Once you've made it home, you're not in the clear yet. You still need to follow the general principles of quarantining. This includes:

  • Limiting time in public, except for doctor's visits, appointments, etc.;
  • Wearing a face mask outside the home;
  • Maintaining at least six feet of physical distance from others;
  • Avoiding large gatherings and crowds; and
  • Washing hands with soap for at least 20 seconds and using hand sanitizers when soap is not available.

You may also want to keep tabs on your family members' health during your stay. If they experience any symptoms, including loss of smell, sore throat, fever, muscle aches, or a cough, you may have been exposed — or even given it to them. In that case, you'll want to get tested as soon as possible and quarantine yourself for 14 days.

Even if you don't have the virus, your college may urge you to quarantine for two weeks before returning to campus. This is especially important if you're thinking about hanging out with some hometown friends during the holidays.

Health experts recommend skipping house parties, avoiding crowded bars, and limiting face-to-face interactions. Gatherings are still not a great idea, so it's best to prioritize. If you're home to visit your family, focus on them, and leave the friend events for Zoom. After all, it's a wacky holiday season, and everyone needs to do their part managing the fallout of COVID-19.

Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.

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